Weather Forecast


Working to makeover the Mississippi

Clear water - it's a mark of a healthy river, a clean river, and a river that supports all kinds of recreational use.

Sections of water in and around the Mississippi River, however, aren't doing so well. There are some who are trying to change that.

The Mississippi Makeover Project is coordinated by the Dakota County Soil and Water Conservation District in cooperation with Dakota County, the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency and the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources. The project's goal is to clean up Spring Lake, the Lower Vermillion River and Pool 3 of the Mississippi.

The bulk of restoration efforts are being directed by a group of locals - citizens, elected officials, organizations, agencies and industry and commerce leaders. They are the Citizen Advisory Group, and in their meetings in the past year and a half, they've come up with a list of restoration targets, including water clarity, aquatic vegetation, sedimentation, invertebrates, fish and waterfowl.

On Aug. 17, CAG members joined representatives from agencies associated with the river for a day-long tour that put a physical face to river restoration activities. The tour started at Lock and Dam No. 2 in Hastings and traveled along the river to North Lake, where the group got to see the current conditions of backwater pools below the lock and dam.

One of the biggest problems in the area is the amount of sediment. There's a lot of it. On average, the river carries enough sediment across the first four locks to cover Minneapolis' First National Bank building and the entire city block it sits on. That's about one million metric tons, said Norm Senjem of the MPCA.

Sediment clouds the water, which in turn blocks the light necessary for aquatic plant growth. Plants provide structure to the environment, said Tim Schlagenhaft with the DNR, and without them, fish, insect and bird populations also suffer.

"The whole ecosystem is tied together," Schlagenhaft said.

Another effect from high sediment levels is seen downstream in Lake Pepin. When sediment reaches the north end of the lake, it drops to the bottom. About 85 percent of organic material settles in Lake Pepin, said Mary Stefanski of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. As a result, Lake Pepin resets the water quality of the Mississippi downstream.

However, with so much sediment pouring in from upstream, the lake is filling in - ten times faster than it was before the area was settled, Senjem said.

The CAG wants to reduce how much sediment is in the river, from the current seasonal average of 50 parts per million to 32 parts per million.

To meet the CAGs water quality goals, the river's sediment load would have to be reduced by 50 percent.

"It's a pretty stiff load reduction," Senjem said.

How such a dramatic reduction could be accomplished is still being discussed.

"We don't have all the answers right now," Senjem said.

They should have some solid ideas within a year, however. In that time frame, the CAG is hoping to move into the implementation planning stage of the project.


A good part of the Mississippi Makeover tour was spent examining how restoration projects have improved water quality in Pool 5, near Buffalo City, Wis. The lake there, also named Spring Lake, has improved dramatically in the past five years thanks to the Spring Lake Island Project.

The Environmental Management Program utilized sand dredged from the river to rebuild islands that had disappeared and eroded away with the creation of Pool 5. The islands break up water currents and disrupts wind fetch, or the distance wind can travel over water. With less time on the water, wind is less likely to cause strong waves that can erode shorelines and re-suspend sediments.

Along with island-building, the DNR did a drawdown, lowering the water level about two feet to expose the shallower parts of the lake bottom and give seeds a chance to germinate. Drawdowns can positively impact vegetation growth for about 10 years, Schlagenhaft said.

The result is obvious. Aquatic plants such as arrowhead, wild celery and American lotus are abundant. The water is clear, allowing underwater plants to grow at a record depth of 3.7 meters in Lake Pepin. Bird populations are also healthy, with an average of more than 400 birds per acre, compared to a mere four birds per acre upstream of Lake Pepin, Stefanski said.

"We can do that up there," Schlagenhaft said of Pool 3.


Perhaps the biggest obstacle to restoration around Lock and Dam No. 2 is, of course, funding. Restoration downstream of Lake Pepin was federally funded because of its location in a national wildlife refuge. Outside of a refuge, projects have to be funded through a cost share. Of the total cost, 35 percent has to come from non-federal sources. With a price tag of about $10 million on the Pool 3 project, finding non-federal money might not be easy. Even getting 65 percent federally funded is likely to be a challenge. About $15 million in federal funds is dedicated to the Mississippi habitat each year, but that money gets spread across multiple states, including Minnesota, Illinois and Iowa.

Those involved in the Mississippi Makeover Project are hoping that citizens who want to restore and preserve their part of the river will step up and get involved, contacting public officials in support of the project.

"One of the main reasons this was started was to involve citizens," Schlagenhaft said.

Citizens who want a closer look at water quality in Hastings' Spring Lake are encouraged to participate in the Spring Lake Cleanup Aug. 28.

"That's one very tangible thing people can do," said Laura Jester from the Dakota County Soil and Water Conservation District.

By the end of the year, Jester hopes to have a plan drafted and submitted to the CAG for water management and land activities that would improve conditions around Hastings. The plan could include in-river projects as well as land use management, recreational aspects and a long-term monitoring plan.

For more information on the Mississippi Makeover Project or the cleanup, go to